Peter Gammons: Look West for the class of the National League

In a year in which the Seattle Mariners, who haven’t made the postseason since 2001, were redeveloped and now playing in exile in a land called the Disabled List, the discussions over the weekend in Fenway Park were a positive distraction. It was about shortstop Jean Segura, his .329 average coming off leading the National League with 203 hits in 2016 with the addendum theme “how could Arizona have traded him.”

The fact is that when Mike Hazen made his first major trade as the general manger of the Diamondbacks with friend Jerry DiPoto in Seattle, it was not made because it made sense for both teams, not so one side or the other could promote a headline in the “winners and losers” categories the media so adores.

It isn’t fair to bury DiPoto and the Mariners, not with their entire starting rotation down for the better part of a month. By the way, so is the other player they acquired in the Segura deal, right fielder Mitch Haniger, who is also disabled after a 21 game start in which he was hitting .342 with a .442 on base percentage and .608 slug. They were what the Mariners needed.

But the Diamondbacks finished a trip to Milwaukee and Pittsburgh Thursday 32-22, tied for second in the best division in baseball, second in the wild card, with the second best run differential in the National League. The morning after the deal was made, Hazen said, “sometimes you have to give up more than you want to acquire young, controllable starting pitching.” Taijuan Walker is 24, he’s got a 3.46 earned run average with an 8-3 strikeout-walk ratio and 0.7 home run rate whose home games are in the park that has seen the most home runs in the major leagues. He missed time with a blister issue, but will be back for his next start.

Then there’s the second player the D‘Back acquired, 23 year old, switch-hitting shortstop Ketel Marte, who if you aren’t following the Pacific Coast League in Reno, is leading the league with a .396 average to go with a .435 OBP, .534 slug and 22 extra base hits in 47 games. “I appreciate that it’s hard for Ketel to be doing what he’s done and still be in triple-A,” says Torey Lovullo. “But it’s part of a larger process. He will be in the big leagues and contributing soon.”

What Lovullo and the Diamondbacks are building is unique flexibility. Their regular shortstop is Chris Owings, 25,  who, by the way, entered the weekend with an ,839 OPS, and to add to his value to the team, Owings also has played 16 games in right field and seven at second base, which allows Lovullo to get Nick Ahmed into his defense at shortstop; Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions rates Ahmed the third best defensive infielder in the major leagues, he leads NL shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved, his work with hitting coach Dave Magadan has worked his average to .260 and when he and Matt Barnes went to the University of Connecticut as freshmen Ahmed actually threw harder. In time, Marte will be up and playing different positions, as well.

“What helps the team is that Chris embraces the notion of versatility,” says Lovullo. “Defense is an area in which we’ve made significant improvement, which in turn has backed up the pitching,” Superstar Paul Goldschmidt is ranked by Spratt as one of the ten best defensive infielders in the game. Third baseman Jake Lamb has 14 homers and a .944 OPS, second baseman Brandon Drury has a slash of .295/.332/.457 and is an all-time worker.

Add in a monster two months from Zack Greinke, the emergence of Robbie Ray —likened by Lovullo and Mark DeRosa to Mark Langston—and the way Lovullo is bringing along Archie Bradley out of the pen (and, in time, he will be in the rotation) and what Hazen has maintained from the outset—“there are a lot of good players here”—has been born out. For Arizona to have a 3.59 staff ERA and be fourth in the league in quality starts playing in the best home run park is remarkable. If Ray’s last three starts (23.2 8 0 0 3 25) are an indication that he has arrived at age 25, he, Greinke and Walker could make the rotation a major contending force.

But as well as Arizona has played, they are in a division with two really good teams, the Dodgers and Rockies. As the ‘Backs have built depth, Colorado and Los Angeles are, by design, two of the deepest teams in either league.

There is no tangible reason why the Rockies are 18-9 on the road, exept that from the outset of spring training general manager Jeff Bridich reiterated “Bud Black knows how games in Denver have to be managed” and Black emphasized the building of the pitching from front to end. Obviously Greg Holland and his 1.37 ERA have been immense, but even with Adam Ottavino now sidelined Bridich went and lengthened the pen for Coor’s, where recovery is a serious issue for everyone, most of all relievers,

“We knew we had some very good young power arms and tried to build around them the best we can,” says Bridich. The considered ace, Jon Gray, went down early, but they have 30 starts from roomies—Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland, German Marquez, Jeff Hoffman—and they have pitched really well. Senzatela is a near-certain all-star, and Gray’s return should be a significant addition in the second half.

In fact, in reality, the Rockies have had to work through a myriad of injuries, Carlos Gonzalez is still hitting only .237 and except for Charlie Blackmon’s star play in center and Mark Reynolds’ maturity in his approach, we probably haven’t seen the Coor’s Effects from a club that arguably has the best positional starting position players in the league.

And we certainly haven’t yet seen the best of the Dodgers. What we’ve seen is that Cody Bellinger has star talent, Yasmani Grandal is an elite catcher, Corey Seager is a star, Clayton Kershaw is again Clayton Kershaw, and the rest of the rotation is deep (If Alex Wood’s shoulder is a one start deal, he is one of the steals of the last three years). The bullpen seemingly has 20 arms a night leading to Kenley Jansen; the pen leads the league in ERA and strikeout percentage.

And the depth is remarkable. Chris Taylor plays the whole infield and has a 942 OPS. Brian Barnes is a highly-skilled receiver who can start at second and third, Enrique Hernandez plays everywhere, Chase Utley had a monster May…

And when Madison Bumgarner is back…

It is now June, and the Dodgers, Diamondbacks and Rockies are 1-2-4 in Run Differential, surrounding the Nationals, the only NL East team with a positive RD. Then this week the Padres swept the Cubs. This is not a mirage.

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With the draft coming up in ten days, remember this: it is hard to win without first round picks and international signings.

Look at the players who got into last summer’s All Star Game and from whence they came:

ROUND 1/SANDWICH (22)

ROUND 2                          (2)

ROUND  3                         (3)

ROUNDS 4-6                    (4)

ROUNDS 7-10                  (3)

ROUNDS 11-on                (4)

INTERNATIONAL SIGNINGS  (21)

Those teams like the Marlins who ignore the international market (and think about that in the Miami market) are doomed to mediocrity.

Comments

  1. StanTheMan says:

    Its crazy how much can change in just a years time… this was the same story as the Cardinals Cubs and Pirates

    • I think you are thinking of 2 seasons ago, but I get your point. The Pirates are dead in the water (didn’t even mean the pun but I’ll pretend like I meant it), the Cards might pull through to contend, the Cubs are too stacked to stay at .500. But as it stands here after 2 months, it is quite the disappointment for NL central braggards who said there was a shift in divisional power.